Presented on Wednesday, May 16, 2018 in The Barn at Quarry Farm.
This lecture explores how American writers use satire to expose the wys that "race" operates in our political institutions, social practices, and cultural discourses. In Puddn'head Wilson, Twain shows what happens when legal discourse is taken to its logical extreme. Contemporary novelist Paul Beatty similarly satirizes America's racial structure and - like Twain - he takes aim at the legal system that supports it. Twain's novel is produced in the legal wrangling leading up to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision; Beatty's novel responds to the present-day nadir of African-American jurisprudence: the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which overturned critical aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the effect of the subprime lending crisis on African American homeowners, and the space of "Not Guilty" verdicts in the deaths of African American men. As Twain, Beatty, and others demonstrate, we cannot escape these fundamentally racist legal and social structures until we have created other viable options. As racial satirist Patrice Evans writes, "When we laugh...we are making light, but [we are] also setting the groundwork for raising the bar." For these American writers, satire becomes a powerful means for undermining racist narratives.
Rebecca Nisetich directs the Honors Program at the University of Southern Main, where she teachers interdisciplinary course on race and indentity in the United States. Her manuscript, Contested Identities, explores characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, and knowable. The project underscores indeterminacy - as opposed to ambiguity or "mixture" - as enabling writers to undermine the "one-drop" conceptions of race that dominated the discourse on race in early twentieth century America. Her essays have appeared in African American Review, Studies in American Naturalism, and elsewhere.